Until a few years ago the “best” accent was considered to be the “Queen’s (or King’s) English.” Today we call it “Standard English” or “Received Pronunciation (RP),” and the Oxford Dictionary defi nes it as “The standard form of British English pronunciation, based on educated speech in southern England.” This is the pronunciation that you fi nd written in phonetic symbols after words in dictionaries and English textbooks, and for years it was considered the “proper” way to speak.
The old name, “Queen’s English,” gives a clue to the connotations of this accent. Traditionally it has belonged to people with a good education who are almost certainly well-off. In short, it was the accent of the upper classes. This is clearly illustrated by the 1964 fi lm My Fair Lady, in which the fl ower seller, Eliza Doolittle, takes elocution lessons with the phonetics expert, Professor Higgins, in order to improve her social position. In one lesson she struggles to pronounce the words “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” like a lady.
Nowadays My Fair Lady is comical, not so much because of Eliza’s attempts to speak good English, but more for the actress Audrey Hepburn’s attempts to simulate the accent of a Cockney fl ower girl. Similarly, many old BBC radio plays exist from the 1940s onwards that feature lower-class characters with obviously false Cockney accents. Actors would probably never have got into drama school, if their Cockney accents had been real! In fact another name for Queen’s English is “BBC English” and in the early days of the BBC, radio and later TV presenters needed it to get a job. How could a presenter interview politicians or famous actors if he or she didn’t speak the same language?
Since the 1960s, there has been a far greater acceptance of regional English accents in education and the media. As it has always been the accent of those with power, money and infl uence, RP has become a symbol of undeserved privilege, and, in some contexts, is perceived negatively.
If you are a rock star, for example, RP can seriously damage your street cred! As rock stars usually want to appeal to a wide audience and appear “cool” among the lower classes, they sometimes try to lose an accent that would otherwise label them as upper-class and privileged.
There is even a name for a mock Cockney accent: Mockney, and speakers usually come from a middle or upper-middle class background in and around London.
THE ROLLING STONES
Mockney is not to be confused with Estuary English, the name given to the forms of English spoken in the southeast of England along the river Thames and its estuary. Mockney is a deliberate aff ectation of the workingclass London accent. A person speaking it might adopt Cockney pronunciation, but will keep standard grammatical forms. A real Cockney would probably use non-standard forms (something that, in the past, we would have called “grammatical mistakes!”)
Mick Jagger was one of fi rst celebrities in modern times to be accused of speaking Mockney. He doesn’t sound as bad as Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, but he has always exaggerated his London accent in order to boost his street cred. Examples from more recent times include Lily Allen, Nigel Kennedy, Guy Ritchie and Jamie Oliver.
For diff erent reasons the BBC has also been anxious to shake off its conservative image. As late as 2008, the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, called for an increase in the number of regional accents heard on the corporation’s television and radio programmes, in an attempt to end the domination of the standard English accent.
This strategy did not meet with everyone’s approval. In 2010 the veteran broadcaster, Stuart Hall, attacked the BBC’s “obsession” with regional accents. He defended Received Pronunciation, saying that “for English to remain an international language, it had to be spoken in a recognisable tongue.”
THE RETURN OF RP?
Stuart Hall is 80 years old, but he shouldn’t be dismissed as oldfashioned, as many younger British people seem to share his views. In January of this year, the elocutionist, Helen Hendrickson, told BBC Radio 5 that the demand for elocution lessons has risen sharply since 2010, as graduates seek to improve their job prospects.
So are we to see a return of Professor Higgins? It’s a possibility for, as English becomes an increasingly global language, there will be a much greater need for a common pronunciation, and Received Pronunciation may well return to favour.